In terms of the survival status of Russian films, the 1990s might be compared with the silent era. Private production and distribution companies mushroomed and then often disappeared just as quickly. Oblako-raj is a victim of that: its camera negative was sent to France (where the film was released) and eventually vanished.
In a little town where nothing ever happens, when someone buys a new umbrella it becomes a big event for the whole neighborhood. There is nothing post-apocalyptic here: every character has plenty of life, but there is nowhere to ‘employ’ it, that’s the trouble. So when one day a guy blurts out that he is leaving to work somewhere in the opposite part of the country, it becomes not just the talk of the town, but the reason for existence, the “hour of triumph local time” (that was the first title of the screenplay). The very idea that something could possibly change in anybody’s life brings hope to everyone. And the poor fellow doesn’t have the nerve to admit that he made everything up.
It is hard to say which tradition Oblako-raj belongs to: whether it is the last bow of the great Soviet cinema or the first sparrow of the new Russian one. Both, perhaps. That may explain why, in a country torn by ideological battles, it received unanimous praise. And not only there. Much to the director’s surprise, Oblako-raj was met with an ovation at the Locarno Film Festival and was awarded with a Silver Leopard. “Is this surrealism?” one of the journalists asked at the press-conference. “No, it’s the Russian reality,” the director responded.
But it is exactly Nikolaj Dostal’s ability to distance himself from this reality and acknowledge its grotesque features (at times it feels like Theatre of the Absurd) while still being highly sympathetic towards his characters that puts Oblako-raj in the broadest context of classic cinema with its humanist message. Jurij Nevskij’s superb camerawork plays a key role here. Portraits are generally photographed with a barely tangible wide-angle lens (this enhances the surreal effect), while the location shots, of which there aren’t too many, are mostly done by vertical panning. Such a contrast provides a most effective tension.
Russian filmmakers perfectly realised the significance of that transitional period of history, and the late 1980s-early 1990s were rich in parables and allegories. Dostal’s intentions were modest: he calls his film “an anecdote” – even today, when this anecdote has outlived most of the parables.